Two families walk into a park — one white, the other black, both gathered to stage a drug and alcohol intervention for a family member. Then things get complicated. Robert O’Hara’s latest play with Intiman is as marvelously twisty as a corkscrew doing a double backflip.
When they’re at their best, plays tell you more about yourself than about themselves.
They leave you walking onto the sidewalk wondering, or debating with your date: “Did that character do the right thing or the wrong thing? Was that moment at the end of Act One tragedy in comedy-drag, or the other way around? And why did I laugh at the drunk white woman but not the drunk black woman in the next scene?”
by Robert O’Hara. Through June 25, Intiman Theatre at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. S., Seattle; $20-$50 (206-315-5838 or intiman.org).
His “Barbecue,” which Intiman is currently staging at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, is another sharp skewer. Two families — one white, one black — arrange emergency interventions for an addicted family member, each one a volatile alcoholic and fan of smoking stimulants (meth or crack), nicknamed “Zippity Boom.” Both families have one member scheming to send Zippity to a rehab facility in Alaska, with everyone else questioning that decision.
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But the plot is as twisty as a corkscrew doing a double back-flip and, in an interview, O’Hara requested no spoilers.
During the 2015 premiere of “Barbecue” at the Public Theatre in New York, he said: “There was a lot of ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and ‘what is going to happen next?’ It’s easy to lure an audience to the theater in a suspension of disbelief. And then they’re saying: ‘Now you’re telling me my disbelief was even wrong?’ ”
Each family gathers at the same public park with patchy grass, beat-up picnic tables and a worn-down swing set (courtesy of set designer Julia Welch). Before Zippity even shows up, they have fierce arguments among themselves, while drinking the same whiskey and beer and popping their prescription pills.
“The whole nature of the piece is to play with stereotypes,” O’Hara said. “There’s this phenomenon of joking about TV … Watch a white guy build a house! Watch the white guy go around the world and eat!”
Was he talking about Anthony Bourdain?
“Yes!” O’Hara said. “All he’s going to do is eat and talk to people in indigenous cultures and talk about how great it is that they make food on a rock. Then it’s, ‘Come on, television crew, let’s go on to the next culture.’ But what about the reality where black people build houses and black people eat? … Can we tell a story where we switch the color mode while we’re telling the story? And how does that affect the audience?”
O’Hara said that during one post-show discussion in New York, an African-American woman noted she was uncomfortable with the portrayal of black characters swigging Jack Daniels in the park and getting drunk while they talked about rehab. “And I said: ‘That happened five seconds before with a white actor in the same costume!’ ”
The production, directed by Malika Oyetimein, is a successful study in mirrors: a black family and a white family with the same names (James T., Barbara, Adlean, et al.) struggling with the same problems, drinking the same kind of beer and whiskey, wearing the same clothes (including a pink “Juicy Couture” sweatshirt) and speaking in similar accents. (As a kid who spent part of his youth in the American South among self-professed racists and later moved to the South Side of Chicago, I was regularly stunned by how people who might glare at each other if they met in a public park had so much in common — food, clothes, church affiliations, accents. “Barbecue” shoots right at the heart of that American conundrum.)
“Y’all want to set back and pretend we’re a normal gatdamn family!” the white version of James T. (played by Charles Leggett, with marvelous frustration at the whole intervention plan) shouts. “We ain’t no normal gatdamn family … but all of a sudden y’all read a book or see a TV show and y’all wanna gather up and act like we a normal gatdamn family!”
In another scene, the black version of Marie (Angel Brice) spits out that her sister “might be better off in a rehab that wasn’t 3,000 some-odd miles away from her gatdamn family” with the same exasperated vigor and venom.
In a testament to O’Hara’s success with writing ambivalence into the script, the audience at Intiman’s opening-night performance of “Barbecue” laughed and applauded during the early scenes — but as they realized the play itself was playing with the audience’s stereotypes, the laughs and applause dropped off.
“For me,” O’Hara said, “a play is like a bus. You get on the bus and you don’t tell the driver: ‘Can you drop me off at my house, can you go faster, can you make a quick turn around that car?’ No. You get on the bus and you get what you get.”
Many theaters, he said, won’t touch his work, but he’s happy Intiman has been game with “Bootycandy” and “Barbecue.”
As for the audience members he makes uncomfortable?
“I like to go into the darkness,” he said. “I’m not going to be limited by the extent of your imagination.”